It’s not every day that a veteran catcher sitting in the visitors’ dugout at Wrigley Field showers an opposing rookie catcher with praise, but that’s exactly what Willson Contreras did for Miguel Amaya.
“I always thought that he’s a really great ballplayer,” Contreras said of Amaya on Monday before Contreras made his return to his former ballpark. “He has the talent, he has the passion, he’s really smart, and he has the tools to become a superstar.”
A superstar? That’s a bold vote of confidence from a player on the opposite side of the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry. But as someone who took Amaya under his wing throughout his time in the Cubs’ organization, Contreras may have as good an idea as anyone about how good Amaya can be.
Contreras, from Venezuela, was a big brother-type figure for plenty of Latin-born players in the Cubs’ system. That includes Amaya, who signed with the Cubs as an international free agent out of Panama in 2015. It makes even more sense that, as someone who was once the Cubs’ “catcher of the future” before he finally debuted on June 17, 2016, Contreras probably sees a bit of himself in the now 24-year-old Amaya.
The road to replace Contreras as the “catcher of the future” was never easy for Amaya.
The lost minor league season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Tommy John surgery and a Lisfranc fracture in his left foot limited Amaya to just 63 games between 2020-22. He was behind the plate for only 12 of those (all coming in 2021). The Cubs added Amaya to the 40-man roster after the 2019 season, but he produced so little data from all the time he missed over the last three years that it became increasingly hard to project him as the future for the Cubs at catcher. But even with that, they still recognized the raw talent he possessed. They still understood what a healthy Amaya could mean for this ballclub.
“I mean, he’s a guy that’s been a top prospect for a long time, it’s just he had two major injuries,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said. “Hopefully now he can stay healthy. The healthy version of him I think should play catcher in the big leagues for a long time.”
Finally in a place where they felt he could contribute, the Cubs called Amaya to the majors for the first time last week when Yan Gomes went on the seven-day concussion injured list. The fact that he was the only other catcher on the 40-man worked in his favor, but they had enough faith in a rookie catcher to pair him with Tucker Barnhart while Gomes was sidelined.
This wouldn’t be any old emergency call-up. Not only was this Amaya getting his first taste of the big leagues, but it was also him being tasked with managing an entire major league bullpen. That can be stressful situation for anyone. Fortunately for Amaya, he caught bullpens and live BPs for what he estimated was almost half the pitchers on the major league roster during spring training. So, there was at least some familiarity there. And during that time, his teammates took notice of the work ethic he eventually displayed after being called up.
“As soon as his feet hit the ground, he was ready to roll,” Barnhart said. “I saw that in spring training, just the way he works, and nothing’s changed. It’s been fun to watch, and it’s been impressive.”
Amaya was only in the majors for eight total days, but he got behind the plate six times during that stretch. In four of those games — including his major league debut on May 4 — he was the starting catcher.
He wasn’t just there to back up Barnhart until Gomes got back. He was there to contribute and try to help the Cubs pick up some ‘W’s. And though they only went 3-6 while he was up, he still earned rave reviews from people throughout the Cubs organization.
Said Cubs manager David Ross: “I think Miggy has definitely put himself on the map. I think he’s been there for a little while and obviously dealt with some injuries, but you never know until someone gets up here. … He’s definitely shown all the work that he’s put in, taking care of his body, the at-bats, his catching skills, all that stuff, really. He’s worked hard to get back to where he’s at, and it’s paying off.”
Said Hoyer: “That was really impressive. Not only on the field, but talking to the coaching staff, talking to the pitchers about what they saw. I thought he handled the staff great. Kind of winning those guys over and having the veteran guys commenting on his calmness, I thought that was really impressive. No doubt, it gives us a lot more confidence [in Amaya] going forward.”
Said Gomes: “At first, you want to kind of walk him into it, but he did a tremendous job. Got nothing but praises from everyone in here. I talked to him [Wednesday]. He impressed a lot of people.”
Amaya may not have performed exactly how he wanted to at the plate (.231/.313/.231), but everything added up to an invaluable experience in the major leagues. He recorded his first big league hit (which he was able to celebrate with his parents, Max and Anny, in attendance). He got to work with the Cubs’ coaching staff to better understand how things are done at this level, and he caught three Cubs starters and seven relievers, which should help as he continues to learn what makes each pitcher tick.
“I’ve always been trusting myself, believing that I can play [at] the high level,” Amaya said. “And so now that I’m playing it, I’d say I deserve to be here.”
He also had the opportunity to work alongside respected veteran catchers in Gomes and Barnhart. Even if Amaya was starting the game, both were still in the meetings with him. They answered whatever questions he might’ve had and passed along the things they’ve learned during their combined 22 MLB seasons.
As far as invaluable experiences go, that could been as important to Amaya’s career as anything else.
“I respect those guys,” Amaya said. “That’s why they’ve been so long in this business. The way they prepare, the way they go through things. That’s been helping me a lot since spring training, just being around those guys. It just gives me so much confidence, because that’s the thing that they’ve been having success with, and that’s what I have to do from now on.”
Years ago, Amaya looked like the future at that position for the Cubs. Did they know then they were for sure going to move on from Contreras? Maybe not, but they felt they had someone rising through the ranks they believed in at the spot, too. Injuries delayed that timeline, but they didn’t completely derail it. You have to give Amaya all the credit in the world for pushing through the obstacles and making it to the big leagues.
Considering this is his last season with minor league options, the Cubs had to get a look at what they had in Amaya. They were impressed with his .273/.411/.659 slash in 13 games with Double-A Tennessee before the emergency call-up, and they know he’s a solid defensive catcher (including with those “soft factors”), but they needed to get a look at him.
Amaya was optioned to Triple-A Iowa on Wednesday, but now, the Cubs have an idea of who he is as a big league catcher. They’ve seen how he works with a major league pitching staff. They’ve seen how his bat can translate at this level, even if it didn’t always lead to box score results.
Maybe it’s premature to say he’s definitely part of the “The Next Great Cubs Team” Hoyer talks about. Still, his brief first stint in the majors has the Cubs envisioning a scenario where he is the “catcher of the future” again.
“I think that’d be wonderful.” Hoyer said. “… I’m reluctant to overstate it, just because I feel like he’s gotten hurt a couple of times, but I think the healthy version of him is going to play in the major leagues for a long time.”